Bad Things, Louise Wallace, Victoria University Press, 2017
Some poetry collections depend upon a thread of similarity; connective subject matter, recurring motifs, a cohesion of form, tone and voice. Other collections resemble mosaics made of infinitely varied pieces that come together in surprising and satisfying ways. Louise Wallace’s new book, Bad Taste, exemplifies the latter. Turn the page and you have no idea what to expect – yet everything fits in the same animated package. There is a freshness and a daring at work here, because the poetry seems beholden only to its own choreography. I love that. I can’t think of another book quite like it. The cover, with the little patch of flame in the dark, and the boat waiting with its strange mix of birds, is the perfect entry into the poems.
Sometimes the poems relate little stories; condensed in prose paragraphs or strung with slashes to read in a single outbreath. Certain poems stop you in your tracks when you get to the last line and then tip you off the tracks of reading. ‘The hunt’ begins with a woman needing silence, yet it’s impossible to find when her voice rings out ‘like bells in the library’. She needs ‘to go church to pray’, but the poem does the twist and tilt and the ending becomes uneasy:
and without the silence she can’t pray / and if she doesn’t pray she will starve
Images also keep you on your reading toes: they might be strange, brightly-lit, smudged. There is, for example, a depiction of terrible things, ‘bad things’, that might fill a head:
They grow there—
a forest of tiny umbrellas.
a crown of terrible heads.
from ‘Bad things’
Or the sight and sound of a woman in a dump shop; ‘I’m amazed, she says’ over and over (‘Trash Palace’).
Or the sight and sound of a woman packing her husband and various assorted characters, including ‘the owner of the local chip shop’, into a row boat:
though it was extremely cramped
and they rowed
out to the open ocean
and sat quiet
from ‘The body began to balance itself’
One poem may be densely packed and prose-like, while the next might offer short snappy lines that extend a poetic spine down the page:
fingers to forehead
hand to cheek
Strange poems, that may be hyper-real or surreal, hook with the element of surprise crouching somewhere:
7. You cannot take off the backpack.
8. You cannot just take off either.
9. You try to escape your own skin.
from ‘Right of return’
Sometimes it is a matter of taking three or four things (a man in a bus, the downhill, the light and the safety) and seeing what happens:
the light bounces
off the hill blindingly
bright and he’s saying
and he’s right, and all
through the bus
there is light.
from ‘Safety first’
Politics hue the mosaic pieces and slip in different directions, whether gender or ecological. Famous people glint the surface because their very presence is out-of-the-ordinary in the day-to-day ordinariness of what goes on. I especially like Meryl Streep, (but you also get Robert Redford and Reese Witherspoon): ‘Meryl Streep went nuts at me in the breakfast room, because I’d taken her table by mistake.’ I also like the arrival of Reeese, in ‘There are lots of ladies who have survived the desert’. The protagonist is walking in the desert, parched and desperate, when she hears wailing: ‘Reese Witherspoon emerges from behind a shrub, holding a plastic bowl full of oats and water.’ She cannot get her primus to work. Again Louise delivers the twist and tilt at the end of the poem, as though a shadow voice whispers to us to find perspective when we read of her neighbour: ‘Janet’s husband came home drunk one night and smashed a chair across her back.’
To understand the ability of the collection to travel and arc and shuffle, you need to juxtapose the offbeat with the achingly real. ‘Helping my father remember’ is the white hot searing heart of the collection. Communication is impaired: ‘Except something’s/ gone wrong with the wiring/ and he didn’t teach me/ how to fix it.’ The poem delivers such an emotional hit because of the way it lays little details alongside each other; the fact that the daughter is most like her father and his mother, and that sound might reactivate memory or that she is following him ‘through/ tall grasses, as high/ as my head.’ This time the ending is not a strange tilt but a poignant dive deeper below the poem’s surface:
to the river.
You find Nana,
and I’ll find you.
We won’t be lost
if we’re together.
If Louise’s new collection pulls you into a mosaic of dream, confession, anecdote or troublesome issues, it does so with a deft and darting accumulation of line. The overall effect works upon your ear, eye, heart and mind. There is stillness and movement, gaps and prickling images. I couldn’t ask for more – it’s a terrific read.
Louise Wallace is a poet and the founder and editor of The Starling, a literary journal for young NZ writers. She has published two previous collections: Since June (2009) and Enough(2013) . She was the 2015 Robert Burns Literary Fellow at Otago University.
Victoria University page
‘Reminders for December’ plus author note posted on Poetry Shelf
Louise in conversation with Pip Adam on Bad Things at Better Off Read
The Starling an online literary journal for young NZ writers